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Investigation in Drug Case May Widen

Ventura County sheriff cites possible manslaughter charges against doctor.

December 04, 2003|Amanda Covarrubias and Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writers

As federal prosecutors pursue their case involving an alleged illegal prescription drug operation in Ventura County, local authorities continue to investigate the inner workings of the operation and how it is believed to have led to illicit street sales and possibly contributed to a number of deaths.

Dr. Michael Huff, 55, and pharmacist Richard Ozar, 58, were arrested this week on suspicion of overprescribing and illegally selling highly addictive painkillers to patients and customers, some of whom had criminal backgrounds.

Sheriff Bob Brooks said Wednesday that the ongoing investigation could lead to manslaughter charges against the Oxnard doctor and send the investigation in other directions.

"You never know whether this kind of investigation will lead to another pharmacy or doctor," Brooks said.

Meanwhile, Ozar, who is free on $75,000 bail, continues to operate his Victoria Village Pharmacy in Ventura. He declined to comment Wednesday, referring questions to his lawyer.

Defense attorney Victor Sherman said the pharmacist had done nothing illegal and was simply following the doctor's orders. He suggested the government was trying to make an example of his client.

"This is a surprising case," said Sherman, who has handled high-profile drug cases in federal court for more than a decade. "Maybe there is a problem with painkillers, but to go after the pharmacist seems a major stretch."

An official with the state's Department of Justice said they are trying to determine the best course of action to discipline the pharmacist, including seeking a temporary restraining order to immediately suspend him. Also, they are pursuing a formal complaint filed against Ozar by the state Board of Pharmacy.

"We're exploring all possible avenues of action aimed at stopping him from practicing in California," said Michel W. Valentine, a deputy attorney with the state Department of Justice. "We will do whatever it takes to ensure the public is protected."

Ozar and Huff were arrested Monday on a 90-count federal grand jury indictment accusing them of prescribing and selling tens of thousands of tablets of powerful painkillers from 2002 to 2003. They were released on bail the following day and are scheduled to be arraigned Dec. 15 in federal court in Los Angeles.

The indictment charges Huff and Ozar with conspiracy to distribute five prescription drugs -- OxyContin, Roxicodone, Methadone, Hydromorphone and Actiq -- in violation of federal law. Huff is charged with 55 counts of unlawful distribution of drugs, and Ozar with 33 counts of unlawful distribution.

The indictment alleges that Huff, to increase his patient base, prescribed drugs to people regardless of whether the medication was needed, and in doses that exceeded manufacturers' recommendations.

He is specifically accused of overprescribing OxyContin to patients so their insurance companies would pay for higher quantities of the drug.

The conspiracy extended to Ozar, according to the indictment, because the pharmacist allegedly knew the drugs were not medically necessary.

Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said Wednesday that drug-trafficking charges could have been filed in state or federal court. He said authorities ultimately sought a federal indictment because the drugs are regulated under federal law and were allegedly moving out of state. The indictment does not allege that Huff and Ozar were distributing drugs to dealers for street sales, but state and federal authorities said this week that evidence gathered during a 15-month investigation suggests that is what occurred.

According to the indictment, about 160,000 pills were prescribed to nine patients during a one-year period. Said Mrozek: "There is no way anybody -- no matter how bad their pain is -- is going to use that many pills over the course of a year. It boggles the mind."

During a news conference Tuesday, Sheriff Brooks said investigators found 43 people with ties to the Thousand Oaks area who had visited Huff for the "sole purpose of prescription-drug abuse and/or street sales." He described those individuals as being "loosely affiliated through gang membership or criminal association."

Meanwhile, a Feb. 24 search warrant affidavit attached to a complaint against Huff with the Medical Board of California outlines much of the government's case.

Ventura County sheriff's narcotics specialist Victor Fazio, who wrote the report, says in the 95-page affidavit that Christopher Cavallo, 29, was arrested several times in the Thousand Oaks area in early 2002 on various charges -- including narcotics violations and burglary -- and told investigators he was being treated by Huff for back pain caused by a car accident.

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